Am I overreacting or is this totally illegal/wrong?
August 21, 2013 9:30 AM   Subscribe

The new job I applied for called a work reference I did not authorize and I got a bad review. Should I leave this entire job off my resume? Bonus general career anxiety/issues inside!

Hey, MeFites - me again.

Was wondering if y'all could help me parse this situation, a bit.

I'm a mid-twenties female and I work in a niche-y sector of the entertainment industry. I'm not really looking to leave my job - I'm secure and relatively content - but I saw an opportunity with a high-profile name attached to it and decided to apply for the hell of it. I went through the motions and seemed to be doing fine, but I hit a snag yesterday during the process.

The hiring manager told me yesterday that she called someone from the last job I worked at, and that person had given me a bad review. I find this puzzling because she asked me for a list of references, and called none of those (she did tell me that the person she called was specifically NOT the person I had authorized.)

She told me the bad review "raised red flags" for her. I admit that I had an absolutely terrible, miserable time at my former job and that I did not get along with my colleagues there. It was a *very* big name show, and I guess I couldn't swim with the fishes. Ok. But was it okay for this place to just call their contact at my former job, even though it wasn't the person I listed? (BTW, I had cleared with MY reference that she would be comfortable giving me a good recommendation. Maybe out of pity, but whatever.)

In any case - the hiring manager offered me the job, anyway, despite her warnings that she couldn't be tasked to "babysit" someone and that she needed a "strong woman." I don't think I'm going to take it for various reasons, including the fact that the pay isn't high enough for the added stress factor (and not enough for me to leave my comfortable job), and the role is not exactly in the creative direction I want to go in my career - but this has weighed heavily on me. And I'd be lying if I said it didn't push me to the side of not taking it.

It has shaken my already-fragile confidence. I thought I was over that terrible experience, but now I feel like it is going to define the rest of my career.

To be honest, I had a very hard time at my (really prestigious...ugh, I sound like an ass writing that) university - depression/anxiety, etc. - and then a very difficult time in the workforce up until now. I know it's kind of a problem if I can't handle high-pressure situations if I want to work in entertainment, but it's the only thing I've ever wanted to do. I'll accept if it ends up never working out in the long run, I guess, but this recall of the bad job triggered a bunch of terrible memories of my failure to perform, even going back to childhood. Ugh.

The problem is - I want to move up and make more money, and I know that means more stressful positions, usually. I'm not sure if I'll ever get far enough in this career because of my issues, and that frightens and depresses me. I'm scared that I'm only staying in my current role because I'm afraid of taking on anything more challenging - and potentially more lucrative.

I question is two-fold.

1) Should I leave this job entirely off my resume? It was a bad experience but I know the "brand" name gets me callbacks. Also, I was there for around 7 months so it'd leave a pretty big gap.
2) I want to move up in this career. (My current job is great, and I like it, but I know I'll never make money if I stay in this position.) How can I do it if I have a thin skin? I'm not willing to go down without a fight. Therapy, assertiveness training, meds? I'm down for everything.

Thanks - I hope that made sense!
posted by themaskedwonder to Work & Money (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
To answer an earlier but not your final questions -- yes, it's totally okay for them to contact whoever they want, whether or not you approved it. Alison at Ask A Manager just recently addressed this in one of her posts on another site (see #3). I recommend reading through some of the archives -- something more specific to your situation might be in there.

That said -- you should probably leave the job on your resume. It was bad luck that she had a contact there, and worse luck that that person gave her a bad impression, but you're right that leaving off a relevant job is probably more red-flaggy than leaving it there.

If you have trouble with depression and anxiety, you should see a doctor/therapist/psychiatrist for help, regardless of what career you're in.
posted by brainmouse at 9:35 AM on August 21, 2013 [12 favorites]

The bad review wasn't so bad that you didn't get the offer, and reference checks are often perfunctory and unlikely to go off the map like this unless someone knows someone at your old job personally. So I'd suggest ignoring this and making all future decisions as if it hadn't happened--no harm, no foul, and little chance of a repeat.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:38 AM on August 21, 2013 [5 favorites]

You say you've had some anxiety and troubles in your work life before, but it sounds like you are comfortable and succeeding in your current job. For me the real question is, why are you applying to new jobs at all? There is no upward mobility in your current position or company? For years, I worried about moving up the career ladder and having a prestigious job that would impress everyone or make a bunch of money. I was never happy doing that and putting myself through stressful high-powered jobs to prove I could do it. I am over that shit. Now all I want is a job that pays me well enough to live a comfortable life, lets me feel in control, gives me positive interactions with my co-workers and gives me confidence because I succeed. I focused so much on salary and on prestige, that I didn't actually think about what I wanted. Even if you get $20k more than you have now, you're still going to spend most of your life at work. You had better enjoy it.

It was shitty that she called someone who you didn't list as a reference, but she also didn't penalize you for it because you got the job. If the person she called worked with you, then it's not really wrong to ask for that person's opinion. Unless that person had a personal problem with you and then maybe you could say something about personalities that didn't mesh (not sure if it's better to have personal problems with co-workers or be a bad worker -- that's a whole other question). But I have one job where I left on bad terms with everyone. If anyone asks, I will say they are probably upset that I quit so soon after starting there, but I generally won't list people from that employer as a reference. But I will not take valuable work experience off my resume. It's not as if I was fired. Is there anyone at your current company you could use as a reference and who would be supportive of you looking for a new job?
posted by AppleTurnover at 9:41 AM on August 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

You got the job. Everything that happened before that is unimportant. You got the job. Dwelling on how the hiring manager acted is pointless. You got the job.

The hiring manager was doing her job. It is not fair to her or to you to believe that she should only speak with the people you want her to speak to. Would you be mad if she'd called someone else and gotten an unexpected glowing recommendation, or would you be happy that she went the extra mile?

1) Should I leave this job entirely off my resume? It was a bad experience but I know the "brand" name gets me callbacks. Also, I was there for around 7 months so it'd leave a pretty big gap.

Leave it there. It will become less and less important as you proceed in your career, and the gap will look funny and be a reason for people to put your resume in the "Don't Bother" pile. These days, hiring managers are looking for those reasons, because they get dozens (if not hundreds) of applicants for every opening. And if it comes out in the hiring process (or even afterward) that you intentionally "lied by omission," it will sink you.

2) I want to move up in this career. (My current job is great, and I like it, but I know I'll never make money if I stay in this position.) How can I do it if I have a thin skin? I'm not willing to go down without a fight. Therapy, assertiveness training, meds? I'm down for everything.

Work toward making this job the highlight of your resume by kicking its ass. Every minute you spend worrying about what that job did to your career is a minute utterly and completely wasted. See a therapist; in the meantime, when you find yourself worrying about the old job or the hiring manager or anything else that happened before yesterday: close your eyes, take a deep breath, count to five, let out the breath, open your eyes and do what must be done at your new job in that moment.
posted by Etrigan at 9:49 AM on August 21, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: She can call whomever she likes, but I would advise to address this upfront with any prospective employers. At the appropriate time, of course. The best way would be if they ask you in an interview, "Tell me about a time when you had a huge challenge."

"When I worked for Big Name Show it turned out not to be such a great fit for me. I tried, X, then Y and finally Z. What I learned was that sometimes it's not how much you know or how bright you are or even how hard you work, it just comes down to fit. That's why I'm really careful now about choosing new opportunities where I believe that my skills, talents and goals align with those of the organization. To that point, tell me more about the work/life balance here."

In every interview, before they get to the checking references portion of our game, you need to let them know that Big Name Show and you are not friends.

Everyone in the entertainment industry has a story about a hideous experience they had with a production company or studio or, in my sister's case, a really fucked up producer.

Stay classy, never disparage the organization or the people in it, and chalk it up to 'Fit' that glorious catch all that means, "those people were batshit."

Besides, word gets around about these places. Entertainment is a very small industry and most folks know who the assholes are.

As for this gig, I agree. Someone who's making you feel yukky from jump street...not going to be a good fit.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:51 AM on August 21, 2013 [24 favorites]

Best answer: the hiring manager offered me the job, anyway, despite her warnings that she couldn't be tasked to "babysit" someone and that she needed a "strong woman."

I used to take pep talks like this as a positive challenge and felt like "hey, they're telling me upfront what they expect."

I've increasingly taken these to mean "I'm admitting up front that I'm hell to work for."

If you don't need this job and are getting bad vibes, I wouldn't take it.

As to what to do about the job on your resume, it's a tossup. If it would leave a gap in your resume without it, I'd leave it in. But yes, it's perfectly fair for that person to call anyone they know or can catch to ask about you. For a hiring manager (like me), knowing someone who knows a candidate who ISN'T the contact they put down is GOLD. Yes, I know that person could have an irrational dislike or a mistaken opinion; that's why I call more than one reference.
posted by randomkeystrike at 10:05 AM on August 21, 2013 [18 favorites]

Don't take the job. As RB said, it's already a bad fit.

I have a lot of anxiety around work as well. Actually, I should say, I did. I do still have anxiety but I got it pretty well under control on the work front by doing a lot of internal work. Before searching for and accepting my current job, I took a lot of time to think about what success meant for me. What did it feel like? What was I doing every day? What did the dollar amount look like? How did my coworkers treat me? What did the environment look like?

What I noticed is that success, for me, felt more like personal achievements (I delivered a great project, I work well with my coworkers, I work in and contribute to a respectful, professional, adult environment, I make X a year) rather than title based (I am a CEO). Also, I worked with a CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) therapist to work on boundaries and managing anxiety. It really helped me figure out the line between I'm crazy and they're crazy and this environment is crazy making. I also worked on assertiveness with my therapist (which for me, is the same as working on boundaries, but it may look different for you). There are lots of different kinds of therapy out there; CBT is fairly common and worked well for me, so that's the one I recommend, but something else may also work for you.

I would leave Big Show on your resume. As others have noted, as more time passes, the less import it will have. It will still look Super!Cool! but the likelihood that anyone will know someone else who also worked on Big Show will start to diminish.
posted by RogueTech at 10:16 AM on August 21, 2013

When I had my first internship out of college, I was horrible. I was super burnt out and I didn't do nearly as well as I could have done if I had been in the right head space. But having that organization on my resume definitely opened doors for me. So I wouldn't leave it off my resume, especially if it's short/thin, but I would be prepared to explain what happens if they, or anyone, give a poor reference.

A friend used to work for a crazy person. When my friend was applying for a new job, the person doing the hiring called the crazy person who gave a crappy reference. The hiring manager had already met my friend and thought he seemed nice, plus he had heard that the crazy guy was crazy so the hiring manager called my friend and asked what that was about. My friend explained and the hiring manager gave my friend the job.

Anyone can hit the slow pitch. Hiring managers want to see what you do when you're thrown a curve ball. And while I would have doubts about taking this job, I would also tell myself that I might not get a similar opportunity again so I better be sure.
posted by kat518 at 10:18 AM on August 21, 2013

It was shitty that she called someone who you didn't list as a reference,

No it isn't. This is frequent, normal, and appropriate behavior. A list of references is a curtesy (often a required one!) to a potential future employer, helping them get a better view for who you are as an employee. It's not a list of the only people they can contact. While many hiring managers are lazy and don't go astray from the list, they're free to contact anyone they want, at any time, to get information about you.

This isn't illegal, improper, or foolish - quite the opposite. No one smart is going to put forth a reference who isn't going to say glowing things about the candidate, and hiring managers know that.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 10:28 AM on August 21, 2013 [10 favorites]

IANAL. I would talk to someone in HR at Previous Job and tell them specifically that they are not authorized to discuss your performance unless they have a signed release. Your performance reviews of any kind are confidential and may not be shared freely, contact or no contact.
posted by theora55 at 10:34 AM on August 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Imagine that you're the hiring manager, and you're looking at someone's references. You don't know any of these people, and if the potential hire is smart, they'll have vetted them in advance. But in addition to the references you don't know, you see the potential hire worked for your buddy Clint, over at Big Name Show.

Do you call the vetted references, or do you call Clint? I know I'd call Clint.

Now, in your case, unfortunately, Clint's kind of an asshole. (And, side note, the fact that Clint's a friend may say something about the hiring manager.) It happens. It's unfortunate. But you know what? The people you want to work for won't be friends with Clint.

I think it makes sense to let this job go. However, I wouldn't worry that this one bad reference from Clint means that every hiring manager from here to eternity will call Clint. It doesn't. Most people don't even know Clint.

As for the stress in your future career, well, that's how careers work. The things that stressed me out crazy-bad ten years ago are now "Meh, gotta check that off" items on my to-do list. I still get stressed, but it's over new things, and ten years from now, those will be the check-off items. It's part of learning and growing.

If your job isn't challenging at all right now, I think it might be worth looking for a new task at your existing job that does challenge and stress you, so you can expand your horizons, and try some challenges in a mostly-safe environment.

Also, I think it would make a lot of sense to talk to therapist about the depression/stress/anxiety issues. If you aren't already doing that, it could be a HUGE help. It kind of sounds like you may be catastrophizing here, and it makes sense to look into why you're doing that.
posted by pie ninja at 10:41 AM on August 21, 2013 [7 favorites]

Your previous employer is under no obligation not to talk about you or your performance. You can call them and demand that they not speak about you or your performance reviews, but that will have no effect and the unwarranted demand will make you look worse.
posted by grouse at 10:57 AM on August 21, 2013 [8 favorites]

You got the job, so who cares?

That said, yes, they can call whomever they like; it isn't illegal. It's also not a good idea to leave that job off your resume because (a) it's experience in your field, and (b) it's easier than explaining away a 7-month employment gap that doesn't actually exist in a job interview.

This is, however, a red flag for YOU that maybe you shouldn't take this job, and you seem to recognize that. The hiring manager did you a favor by telling you that; she didn't have to tell you about calling your references (or other references you didn't give her) at all.
posted by tckma at 11:25 AM on August 21, 2013

Kind of an outlier.

Let's put it this way: your future employer is never going to be nicer to you than when they decide to hire you.

The verbal barbs about babysitting, plus the implication that you are weak, and that you are a weak woman on top of that, would indicate to me that this employer would be hellish to work for.

Don't worry about it.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:08 PM on August 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


The entertainment industry is full of sadistic assholes. There are also lots of talented awesome people in there, too.

Don't take this job because you don't want to work for someone who tells you you're a red flag, but then offers you the job anyway!!

This is the sign of a dysfunctional workplace, as is the stress for low wages. This woman is already fucking with you. Don't work for anyone like this. Ever.

Learn to read these signs if you want to stay in the industry.

Everyone else spoke to the rest of your question.
posted by jbenben at 12:21 PM on August 21, 2013 [7 favorites]

Your credits will follow you around, even if you don't add them to IMDB. Show biz is a world of relationships, and people will always know someone who worked with you. Figure that's just a given. Not every job is a match. Not every production is going to be a fit. I've worked for and with some people who think I'm the Queen of Heaven and some who wouldn't spit on me if I was on fire. It's just the breaks of the game. I try to have a succinct explanation (but not an excuse) for those places I just didn't fit. Chemistry, lack of budget, poorly managed expectations--whatever fits.
You got the gig, so do you best and don't repeat past mistakes, but don't dwell on what happened then. If you think it looks like a minefield, don't take the job.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:30 PM on August 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Agreeing with others that it isn't out of line for a hiring manager to contact references you didn't provide. Hiring someone new is risky, and a HM's job is to assess that risk. That said, I wonder if the HM told you about the negative review to prime you to accept a lower salary than you're worth. (In ideal world the HM told you about this to give you an opportunity to explain what happened, in which case I commend the HM's honesty. But I have heard of this "negging"-like tactic being used to get new hires to accept relatively low salaries. Like, "oh, we found this dirt on you, we're taking such a huge risk with you! We'll only pay you this much.")

the pay isn't high enough for the added stress factor (and not enough for me to leave my comfortable job), and the role is not exactly in the creative direction I want to go in my career

I, too, would find it hard to navigate these waters ! Here's what I would do about it. First, decide a monetary value that would make it worth it. Choose two numbers: what you would ideally want, and the lowest pay you'd accept (maybe with some wiggle room for non-financial perks). Second, really narrow down the creative direction you'd like to pursue in your career and see where there's room for that in this new job. Can you find a number and a creative direction that would be enjoyable and awesome for your next job?

Then I would meet with that HM to discuss the potential value you would bring to them and how you'd like to develop this creative direction to bolster this company's presence in xxx market (or whatever). In other words, figure out what you want, and negotiate to see if this new gig can get you there in a way that will also be beneficial for them. You sound like a rockstar at your current job. You have a high value and you do good work, or else you wouldn't have been offered this job. They want you, and you have the wonderful option of staying in your current comfortable job or trying something new. Embrace the demonstrated value that you provide to your workplace. Fit is important. Part of fit is feeling valued and knowing that you are being compensated at a rate commensurate to what you give. The strongest negotiating chip you have right now is that you don't need this job.

This job might be the right next step, it might not. Think about what kind of job you want to do next and what would be ideal for you and be such an amazing opportunity that you aren't stressed out by it. When negotiating, see if the new job meets those standards. If it doesn't, then continue on in comfortable job until the right opportunity comes along.
posted by nicodine at 12:33 PM on August 21, 2013

Entertainment lighting industry player here.

Success in this industry depends on how little others have to deal with your personal bullshit. It sounds like you have a lot right now. Since we work in entertainment, I find the best thing to do is to be entertaining while achieving what it is you're being paid to do, with fervor. As my current and awesome boss says, the industry needs bus drivers, not bus passengers.

We've all fucked up at work. Just start leaving as much of your personal stuff at home as you can without bringing it to the office for others to have to add to their plate.

My opinion, YMMV.
posted by Jim On Light at 12:42 PM on August 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

I would add that it's OK to not work at the Biggest Name Show. It's good to find the level of stress you are comfortable with and do that. Maybe you felt pressured to go your big time University to fulfill your potential. Maybe you feel pressure to keep climbing the ladder in show biz. Everybody wants more money, but you are seeing the trade-offs that entails. I turned down the job I thought I always wanted last year due to work-life balance issues, and am very happy I did.
posted by huckit at 12:49 PM on August 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you wouldn't be actually be working with this hiring manager, then the job sounds good..... if, on the other hand, you'd be working directly for or with this woman, run.

Generally when it comes to work references, a hiring manager should talk to your supervisor or someone else directly above you --- not merely a coworker or just any stray person who works for your old company: your boss, the person who does your annual personal review, is best. An alternative is the company's HR department, but all they could say is yes, you did work there; HR would be unable to say any more than the mere fact of your having been employed from x date to y date.

Is it legal for a hiring manager to talk to whoever answers the phone or to ask for someone specific they might know in your current company? Yes. Is it ethical? That's a pretty grey area.
posted by easily confused at 1:07 PM on August 21, 2013

Response by poster: Hey guys, OP here, promise not to threadsit -

The HM DID give me a chance to explain myself - she didn't just tell me that I was a red flag and that was it. I basically said that the other job wasn't a good fit in various ways. That's when she brought up the "strong woman"/"babysit" stuff. And various other people in the company (I interviewed with about 4 other people, in little groups) gave me weird vibes, too - including one guy who kept interrupting and aggressively asking me "Are you nervous right now?" "How do you feel under pressure?" at several points during the interview and then going back to looking at his phone, which I found strange since I was in the middle of articulating myself clearly and confidently, I thought...
posted by themaskedwonder at 1:20 PM on August 21, 2013

Interesting post and reactions. To your concluding questions:

"1) Should I leave this job entirely off my resume? It was a bad experience but I know the "brand" name gets me callbacks. Also, I was there for around 7 months so it'd leave a pretty big gap."

I agree with those saying you should "mind the gap." And those saying that you got the job anyway, so that it can't be too bad. Finally, the HM may have been idiosyncratic in her reaction, or manipulating it to influence the bargain struck with you.

"2) I want to move up in this career. (My current job is great, and I like it, but I know I'll never make money if I stay in this position.) How can I do it if I have a thin skin? I'm not willing to go down without a fight. Therapy, assertiveness training, meds? I'm down for everything."

I think anyone opining about a remedy based on this thin description isn't doing you any favors. Maybe you have to sort out a very evident conflict between your ambitions and your appetite for encountering limits thereto. Oh, and on the ambitions front, for me the reddest flag here was that you were applying to this job just for the hell of it, and because of the name. If you want to play that game -- which, not incidentally, poses risks for you with your present employer, and might just be wasting everyone's time -- you do risk disappointment and mutual frustration.

Separately: I am mystified by the minority here saying that it is dubious or unethical to call someone other than the listed reference. I view listed references as a matter of mutual convenience. If I really care about a hire, I'd be a complete idiot to rely solely on someone handpicked by the applicant.

Also, if you want to avoid a repeat, see if you can communicate with old coworkers about how well you are now doing. Don't let your past issue dominate their impression of you.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 1:51 PM on August 21, 2013

Back when I was HR for a small company I *always* looked up former employers' contact information myself and called the company directly and asked to speak to former supervisors in addition to calling the references given to me by the applicant, because how do I know that the references given aren't just a list of the applicants friends who have agreed to lie on the applicants' behalf?

And given that I actually *did* catch liars this way, I'm glad I did it and would totally do it again if were to check anyone's references in the future.
posted by Jacqueline at 3:16 PM on August 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hey guys,

Thank you for all of your amazingly thoughtful and informed answers.

I stalled this morning but finally called the HM back and told her I wasn't able to take the job. She said thanks, and went on her way. Easier than I thought.

Re: the reference thing - I guess I'm still just a newb in the working world, and didn't realize that calling non-authorized references was standard practice. It's probably happened many times before to me and I just wasn't aware. Of course, now it makes total sense, and I don't fault the HM for doing so - I just need to be more careful when referring to this job in the future.

If you feel so inclined, however, please, keep the comments and advice coming! :)
posted by themaskedwonder at 4:01 PM on August 21, 2013

My understanding is that employers have to be very careful about both obtaining and providing references. There is a risk of defamation, wrongful hiring, fraudulent/negligent representation, privacy violation, etc., and they have to let you know that they will be calling past employers, what the information will be used for and how it will be handled - at least here in Canada. I would suggest checking to see what the law is where you live, as it's possible there may be a violation of law (or none at all).
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 8:30 PM on August 21, 2013

I think in your line of work you need to learn to be tough.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:38 PM on August 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think there's still an error in the way you're framing this issue, as in your latest followup you refer to 'non-authorized references'. The references you provide are suggestions, not authorisations.
posted by Ms. Next at 2:39 AM on August 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

This happens all the time. Hell, I do it too. When somebody from another post applies for a job at mine, I contact somebody I know and trust who is or was at their current post. I know that the references provided are going to say good things about the applicant. I want to hear the dirt.
posted by Gringos Without Borders at 5:04 AM on August 22, 2013

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